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Challenges to fire response times and solutions

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SAN DIEGO (CBS 8/CNS) — How prepared is San Diego when it comes to fighting fires? A new study is revealing the challenges around the city when it comes to response times. 

Worsening traffic congestion in San Diego is increasing fire department response times, according to a report delivered to the City Council's Public Safety and Livable Neighborhoods Committee Wednesday. 

The presentation from the consultant Citygate Associates was a follow-up to a 2010 study that quantified the need for more fire stations and determined which locations were most urgent. 

"This is not a square, compact midwest city," said Stewart Gary of Citygate Associates 

According to the update, an analysis found that during normal traffic periods, only 74 percent of the city's public streets were within 5 minutes travel time of an active fire station. Five-minute coverage at morning and afternoon commute hours was reduced to 51 percent of roadways. 
Only 6 percent of city streets were quickly reachable during commute hours for first-alarm responses in which multiple units have to travel across larger sections of the city, the report said. That's even though the first-alarm standard is three minutes longer. 
The report's authors said that in order to put out small fires or treat medical patients, units in 90 percent of cases should reach the scene within 7 1/2 minutes of when the 911 call is received. That equates to one minute for dispatching, 1 1/2 minutes to load into vehicles and 5 minutes to drive to a scene. 

"If you get there after that point the fire is already chewing its way into the walls, the attic and the rest of the structure and lives that were trapped and in peril are in serious danger," said Gary. 

Department-wide, the average response time was 8 minutes and 10 seconds, according to the report. Only one of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department's seven battalions – serving downtown - beat the 7 1/2-minute standard, while another comes within two seconds. 
The average response time for Battalion 5 in La Jolla and University City was 9 minutes and 19 seconds, the report says. 
Gary said Battalion 5 serves a widespread area, prompting a recommendation to add three more battalion command regions in the city. 

Citygate found that none of the battalions met the 5-minute expected driving time, with the average being 6 minutes, 9 seconds. Battalion 5's average travel time to a scene was 7 minutes, 18 seconds. 
Other issues affecting driving times were a rapidly increasing number of medical aids, which tie up manpower when multiple calls come in, requiring firefighters to respond from other neighborhoods; and measures that slow vehicles down, such as traffic circles, Gary said. 
Alan Arrollado, president of the firefighters union, said the volume of calls to the SDFRD has nearly doubled in 15 years. 
"We have not added the resources to deal with it," Arrollado said. "As we grow, the city has become harder and harder to protect." 

The report recommends adding 12 new fire stations. 

Six are in the planning stages, but still years from becoming a reality. 

Study authors say it highlights what happens when cities stop investing in public safety during recessions. 

"When budgets are tight, my clients in the recession would ask, 'where do we close or brown out temporarily a fire station?'" said Gary. "In a city like this, your population is high enough that every neighborhood is consuming service at some hours of the day or week." 
The consultants offered several other recommendations, including to continue closing coverage gaps as funds permit, provide equitable response times to neighborhoods at similar risk, maintain the 5-minute travel time goal, and to deploy peak-time engine companies and so-called "Fast Response Squads." 
The squads are two-firefighter units designed to reach a scene before the main response, in order to assess the situation or begin rescues and medical aids. They've been deployed successfully in Encanto and University City. 
Gary said improving coverage will not only include building more fire stations, but also adding more mobile units. 

Fire-Rescue is following the suggestion to prioritize building some stations in high-need zones. 

Some of the challenges are just finding a place to put a new station. 

In other cases, the city will add engines or two-man fast response squads during peak times to cover crews out on calls 

"The idea is breaking out of the mold of not brick and mortar stations, but the possibility of peak hour companies that can help fill gaps during that time," said San Diego Fire-Rescure Asst. Chief Kevin Ester. 
At the committee's request, a representative of the city's Independent Budget Analyst's Office said they would conduct a full fiscal analysis of the Citygate report. 

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